I will appeal to this

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I love fall in our neighborhood.

In my youth, I read the Bible every day. I was particularly fanatical about it in my early teens, pushing myself deeper into study and memorization. I wanted to know more about the Bible than anyone else, as far as it was within my (overinflated sense of) power. I wrote about scripture every morning, memorized the book of Ephesians and much of 1 Corinthians 15, and ultimately had read through the whole Bible three times by the time I turned 18.

I mention this not to brag but to confess. This obsession with the Bible shape-shifted into a dark, unhealthy thing in my young life. My fanaticism broke something in me. The Book was the method through which, I believed, God would grant me favor and a better standing in the heavenly brackets. (Clearly, I was not absorbing some crucial elements of the good news from those books at the end, the ones with the red parts.) And yet this did not happen. All of this intense Bible reading did not improve my character. I was still as horrible as I’d always been, but now, I was self-righteous about it. Worn out from the posturing and performance, by the time I’d graduated college, I was ready to walk away from the faith of my youth for good.

As it happens, I didn’t walk away, which is another story entirely, but I did stop reading the Bible. My reconfiguration of faith made reading the Bible — an act that was once so vital, so critical to my daily functioning — difficult, even distasteful. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to read the Bible on a regular basis, as much as I’ve tried. I bought new translations, handsomely bound pocket editions, concordances, gigantic ones with commentary. I told myself I’d start memorizing scripture again; I’d read through books during Lent; we’d study the Bible together before dinner. None of it appealed to me (and none of it worked or lasted). It’s not that I wasn’t reading; I was still reading 100 or more books a year. But none of them were the Bible.

I’m still unsure how to fully explain this lapse in Bible reading, but what I do know is that this eight-year break has been restorative. This is a weird thing to say, and my inner evangelical recoils with shame. (To admit such a thing — that not reading the Bible has seemed good for me — verges on serious blasphemy in the circles of my youth.) But it has been. I have been able to enjoy scripture with some distance from it, hearing it every Sunday at church, but I have not buried myself in it; I have not approximated that personal, daily closeness that I once had.

Still, these many years later, I have missed that fervent reader I once knew. Over the past year, I have felt I’m in a healthier, safer place (thanks to the grace of our church, chipping away at my grotesque heart for nearly a decade now), and I have wondered how I could start reading the Bible again. What would it take?

Having a baby, apparently, was what it took. For the past month, in the early hours of the morning, I have read the Bible while nursing Moses. I read it on my phone, needing a free hand to baby-wrangle, which is a new (and not entirely awesome) experience for me. (I’m using the ESV app, which is super-glitchy and full of glaring UX flaws, but it has one of the least gross text interfaces I found.) But it has been working. I have been, to my outrageous surprise, sticking with it.

Leading thoughts thus far? It’s good to be back. And it was right to be away.

I have realized that the Book is still so much with me (and always has been). Even though I clearly didn’t learn much and did not become a better person, all of those years spent reading the Bible shaped my brain and memory. I can still recall scripture easily and with joy. My purity of heart remains Level: Garbage Dump/100% Unrepentant Sinner, but I can remember a weird quantity of the early prophets and the Pauline epistles.

And yet there is still much that surprises me. This is the dual-sided nature of returning to the Bible: I remember so much, and I remember so little.

Specifically, while nursing Moses at 4 in the morning, I was floored by this exchange from Psalm 77, which struck me as just the thing.

I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

I’d forgotten about how delightful that experience is, when reading scripture, when you stumble on just the thing — the small word, the errant phrase that is precisely what you needed. This is the pleasure of such a vast, beautiful Book: It lives alongside you.

I read this and actually said aloud, astonished, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Moses paused and looked up at me and grinned.

In all of these long years away, I had forgotten many things. The remembering has brought a rush of pleasure and contemplation. Returning, now, has felt like the right thing, considering the days of old, the years long ago.

. . .

It’s super-lame when parents say, “This is such a fun age,” but good grief, this IS such a fun age! Moses is five months old now and narrowly holding onto his title as World’s Best Baby. (Woke up at 3:30 in the morning chirping like a pterodactyl, not sleepy at all! Sleep is silly!)

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Best fiction I read in 2018

Transcendent short story collections and novels by non-Americans led the way for me in 2018.

In Transit

1: In Transit, Mavis Gallant

Unreal. I found myself utterly enamored with these gorgeously rendered stories. Each story stands alone, wholly independent from its predecessors, and Mavis Gallant manages this effortless style, creating characters that are at once entirely like us and fully alien. I’m ashamed that this was the first time I had read her, and I’m now committed to consuming everything else she published. (Amazon)

Ninety-Nine Stories of God

2: Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams

The brilliant, incandescent, strange, and illuminating Joy Williams tries her hand at microfiction, and the results are perfectly odd and wonderfully thought-provoking. (If you love Lydia Davis, as I do, you’ll love this collection, which can be read in a few hours.) It is almost not fiction; it is so close to prose poetry that these tiny stories demand several readings.

(Yes, the cover has four German shepherds on it; no, that’s not the only reason I loved it.) (Amazon)

A Heart So White

3: A Heart So White, Javier Marías

Dreamy and beautiful in all the right ways. A Heart So White is an exploration of memory and all the secrets we try to keep from those closest to us. Marías has a delightful, rambling, Proustian style, which I imagine the translator took pains to preserve (as he worked with Marías to finalize this), and although it sometimes makes the mind wander, it’s a deep pleasure all the way through. Looking forward to reading more from him. (Amazon)

Thérèse Desqueyroux

4: Thérèse Desqueyroux, François Mauriac

I felt totally astonished by this novel. Thérèse is such a voracious antihero, an absolute treasure to encounter on the page. I promise you haven’t met anyone else quite like her. (Amazon)

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

 

5: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges

There is some nonfiction in here, but it’s the stories that really stick with you. This collection made me realize, perhaps more than this other work, that Borges really was one of a kind. His intellect is astounding; his passion for history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics is boundless. I do not think I am intelligent enough to have grasped everything here, but I loved the experience, from start to finish. (Amazon)

Spring Snow

6: Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima

I was caught completely off-guard by the beauty of this novel, tracking Japan at the turn of the century, when Japanese tradition is breached by Western influences. I had read Mishima before, but I didn’t know he could be like this. It’s a lovely, fluid translation from Michael Gallagher, which often seems so hard to achieve when Japanese migrates to English, but this translation preserves so much stylistic facility and power.

The fraught friendship (laced with some desire) between Honda and Kiyoaki, and the latter’s fateful passion for Satoko, are deeply memorable, as well as the wealth of visual images and metaphor that strike the mind so powerfully. Overwhelmed by this, in a thoroughly pleasing way, and I finished it quite excited to complete the rest of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. (Amazon)

Midnight's Children

7: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

I read this novel for the second time this year, for my book club, and it was thoroughly delightful and mesmerizing to encounter again. Rushdie handles the madness of this narrative with ease. It’s also just a lot of fun, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when this hefty novel is discussed. (Amazon)

Collected Stories

8: Collected Stories of William Faulkner

So many stories! So many finely spun narratives from one of the very best America ever had. (Amazon)

Florida

9: Florida, Lauren Groff

Pervasively ominous, beautifully written stories that deal with snakes and storms and (often) the travails of motherhood and marriage. I harbor no fondness for Florida, and this collection underscores much of what I dislike and distrust about the state, but the swampy oppressiveness of the land contributes to the magic of this collection. (Amazon)

King, Queen, Knave

10: King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov

I rely on a yearly dose of Nabokov for a stylistic pick-me-up, a requisite lyrical jolt. This novel is particularly fun and tightly focused. It is neither ambitious nor serious, and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
  2. The Night in Question, Tobias Wolff
  3. The Church of Solitude, Grazia Deledda
  4. The Perfect Nanny, Leïla Slimani
  5. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
  6. Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  7. White People, Allan Gurganus

Previously: The best poetry and the best nonfiction I read in 2018.

Best nonfiction I read in 2018

2018 was a banner year in nonfiction for me. I read so much great stuff that it was difficult to choose. Here are my top 10 favorites from the year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions (which are all also worthy of your time and attention).

The Gene: An Intimate History

1: The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those infuriating people who happens to be at the top of his (non-literary) professional field and a brilliant writer. I’ve loved everything he’s published (both his other books and his essays, which often appear in the New Yorker), and I devoured this gorgeously written and riveting history of genetics. It’s written for the layperson but constructed with all the force of his analytical, medical mind. I read it ravenously on a plane, flying from here to Minneapolis, and deeply resented anyone trying to speak to me as I finished it. (Amazon)

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

2: Plainwater: Essays and Poems, Anne Carson

Anne Carson works on me like a drug. I’m always in the mood for her, and I can never get enough. Her free-wheeling mind and her absolute, inviolable independence as a writer and thinker are addictive.

This, like much of her work, is a multifaceted collection, featuring a long poem, short “talks,” travel diaries with various lovers, and meditations, among other things. It does not disappoint. (Amazon)

Known and Strange Things: Essays

3: Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

I might be a bit in love with Teju Cole now. (It’s OK; Guion knows.) I feel like a fangirl, like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for half an hour?

This is a beautiful, engaging collection of essays, spanning so many subjects—and so many that I am already delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, the aforementioned Anne Carson (!), etc. His style and captivating logic worked on me in a powerful way. This is a collection I regret not owning, as I would press it urgently into the hands of everyone I met. (Amazon)

Gravity and Grace

4: Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil

Although I had already encountered most of these essays in an anthology of Weil that I read last year, it was a renewed pleasure to read this free, unfiltered version of her earliest work. Her mind is powerful; you can fall into it like a dark pool. And her way of thinking is one that we need now more than ever. (Amazon)

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners

5: The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser

This book randomly called to me at the library book sale this year, and I’m so glad that it did. I knew nothing about it, but I was intrigued by the title.

Margaret Visser, a professor at the University of Toronto, provides a delightful tour through the history of table manners, from ancient Greece to 20th-century North America. I especially loved her meaningful reflections on culture: how we form it and how it forms us. Her style is meandering, and she seems to find it difficult to focus on one topic, but I liked her vast, wandering approach, and it seems fitting for the subject matter. Recommended for casual history buffs and students of human culture. (Amazon)

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

6: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan

Before he became famous for his real-food polemics, Michael Pollan was puttering around in his New England garden.

This book, published in 1993, is a pure delight and total inspiration to a gardener of my ilk (invested in a garden that balances itself with nature, values native plants, eschews foolish hybrids, and strives to eradicate the lawn in all its iterations). His presentation of a gardener’s ethics was also deeply motivating. I hope to return to it again and again in my gardening life, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys nurturing plants and a small plot of land. (Amazon)

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

7: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen

Utterly gripping. Anyone who naively thinks that history is progressive, that we’re all moving forward in an enlightened direction, should spend a little time with this book.

Masha Gessen writes with all the force and the authority of an excellent researcher, journalist, and Russian native. The book is a clear, salient introduction to Russia’s troubled recent history (1980-present), and it sticks with you after you put it down. (Amazon)

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

8: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

In a series of high-profile interviews, interspersed with personal and national history, Ari Shavit tells a story of Israel and all of its victories and failures, challenges and complexities.

It is perhaps impossible to find an objective source on what Israel was and what it has become, but this excellent book comes close. Shavit is uniquely positioned, as the great-grandson of one of the first colonizing Zionists, as a former detention camp guard, as an anti-occupation journalist, to handle this narrative. Perhaps this is the only way to learn about such a vast, seemingly unsolvable conflict: stories handed down from one person to another, arranged loosely around a long, troubled timeline of the Jewish people. (Amazon)

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

9: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt

American sculptor Anne Truitt keeps a loose-limbed diary, including thoughts about her work, inspiration, motherhood, ambition and provision. The result is a readable, motivating record of a driven artist. She was once a nurse and trained as a creative writer, and both of her capacities for generosity and creativity shine through in this lyrical, finely crafted journal. (Amazon)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

10: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

More than 30 years ago, before we could even conceive of a personal internet or carrying powerful computers around in our pockets, Neil Postman made a chilling prediction the state of American discourse and politics in 2018. Donald Trump is so purely a product and consequence of the Age of Television. It is a gripping and somehow affirming read, backing up all that I have felt this year about wanting to get away from TV, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of it. Although it’s “old,” it reads quickly and is well worth your time. What remains to be seen is whether we can recover from our addiction to entertainment. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  3. Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector
  4. How to Write an Autobiographical  Novel, Alexander Chee
  5. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  6. Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf
  7. Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax
  8. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  9. At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman
  10. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott
  11. Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson
  12. Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa
  13. Calypso, David Sedaris
  14. Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski
  15. The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
  16. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell

Previously: The best poetry I read in 2018. Up next: The best fiction I read in 2018.

Best poetry I read in 2018

I continue to have no idea how to talk about poetry, but here are the collections of poems I liked best in 2018.

Stag's Leap: Poems

1: Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

2: Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Hayden Carruth

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

3: Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

New Collected Poems

4: New Collected Poems, Tomas Tranströmer

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

5: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay

Leaves of Grass

6: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Grace Notes: Poems

7: Grace Notes, Rita Dove

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

8: Worshipful Company of Fletchers, James Tate

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

9: Passing Through, Stanley Kunitz

Our Andromeda

10: Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction that I read in 2018.

Everything that has been excluded

Christmas cards
Christmas cards going out, from years past.

I’m always thinking about reading, but I have been thinking about it in a more targeted way lately, as it pertains to my job as a content strategist/designer.

In Journey Group’s publication on Medium, I decided to make the case for preserving deep reading online: Digital Readers Deserve Better.

. . .

My appetite for fiction waxes and wanes throughout the year. I typically keep a steady diet of 50% fiction/50% nonfiction, but lately, I have found it difficult to concentrate on novels and short stories. I am very slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s first novels — Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth — composed as episodic, unconnected vignettes, and even though I adore him, I am not terribly interested. Nonfiction, however, has been holding my attention with great force.

As I make my top 10 lists of the best things I read in 2018, this preference for nonfiction bears out; I read a ton of excellent nonfiction this year, apparently, and just a handful of excellent fiction. Lists to come soon.

. . .

“The most effective stories are those that resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.”

— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

. . .

With cold nights and cold mornings, I have a passion for lighting candles during this season. I now have candles strewn about in every conceivable living space in our home: kitchen counter, coffee table, bedroom, dining table, etc. It is a small thing, but it makes winter bearable.

Closing side note: If you, like me, are nurturing a passion for candles, I have a recent discovery to share with you: This excellent and very affordable beekeeper in Michigan who makes beautiful 100% pure beeswax candles. I just got my first order of taper candles from him, and I am extremely pleased.

Merry Christmas, all! Hope your season is merry and bright.

Living in the library

the ones that got away: apr.
Stacks at Davis Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (research for my thesis, circa 2009).

Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.

We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)

I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.

Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.

I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”

7 writers to read now

I am always obsessing over something, and right now, it’s these seven writers. I consider them essential, and now I shall badger you to move them to the top of your reading list.

Image result for clarice lispector

1. Clarice Lispector

Want to feel unsettled and amazed all at once? Look no further than the brilliant (and beautiful) Clarice Lispector, a Ukrainian-Brazilian socialite with a wild mind and incandescent, hypnotic prose. She’s unlike anyone else out there.

Where to start? The Complete Stories and then The Passion According to G.H.

Image result for anne carson

2. Anne Carson

What must it be like to have a brain as powerful as Anne Carson’s? Anne Carson is a classics professor, poet, translator, and essayist, and she writes some of the smartest, strangest books I’ve ever encountered.

Where to start? Eros the Bittersweet and then Glass, Irony and God and then Autobiography of Red

Image result for joy williams writer

3. Joy Williams

There’s nothing quite like a Joy Williams short story: Everything is familiar and foreign all at once. The humans behave in mostly unhuman ways and yet you feel like you know them, like you’ve also felt this strange conglomeration of emotions and desires, like you also have been trapped in a moment like this one. I could read her all day long (and have).

Where to start? The Visiting Privilege and then Escapes

Image result for yukio mishima

4. Yukio Mishima

His florid, intense personality (and infamous suicide) garnered him almost as much attention as his writing, but he remains the master of modern Japanese literature. Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy is incredible and moves you seamlessly into another world, wrapped in mystery and expressed with power.

Where to start? Spring Snow and then Confessions of a Mask

[not pictured]

5. Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, and she’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I re-read My Brilliant Friend while in Ischia last month, and experiencing that story again in a portion of its setting was a magical, transformative experience. Her novels will stick with me for years to come.

Where to start? My Brilliant Friend and then the rest of the Neapolitan novels

Image result for simone weil

6. Simone Weil

This irritable, beleaguered genius wrote some of the most unusual and lucid modern philosophy on faith, reason, government, and individual agency. Eminently quotable and pleasantly readable, Weil was a woman that her troubled world needed.

Where to start? Simone Weil: An Anthology

Image result for penelope fitzgerald

7. Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald gets far less attention than she deserves. She produced these tidy, perfect little novels, masters in form, and did it all quietly while raising a brood of children in England (her literary career began when she was 58!). They’re quick and surprising, delightful from start to finish.

Where to start? The Blue Flower and then Offshore

Who are you reading and loving right now?

How to read in 2018

So many great books.
The screen is an easier choice than the book. (Old photo of a friend’s apartment, circa 2012.)

The internet has ruined deep reading for all of us.

We’ve known this for a while (see: Nicholas Carr, among many others), and yet we keep trying to read books in the real world. I keep trying. As a dedicated reader, I admit that it’s a challenge. Reading requires so much effort at the end of a work day, when I’ve spent eight hours looking at words on a screen.

And still, I believe in the calming, edifying power of the printed word. It is better for our eyes and our brains to read off-screen. We remember more; we think more clearly; we engage with ideas on a deeper level. But it’s so hard to read these days. It’s often so unappealing.

Here are some things that have been working for me lately.

Read these online tips to read offline

(The irony! It is not lost on me.)

  • Prime your brain. Don’t jump straight from your phone or laptop to a novel. It won’t work. The screen will seduce you back to itself. Look at something else for a while: your German shepherd, the turkey buzzards circling over the holler, the pastel horizon, the knob of your front door. Then pick up your book.
  • Keep your phone far away from you. In another room. You cannot leave it at arm’s length on a coffee table or nightstand. You will pick it up and put the book down. Judging people’s curated lives on Instagram is infinitely more appealing to our deadbeat brains than Faulkner. We must remember this.
  • Read as slowly as possible. Our internet-addled brains make us skim text. Online, we’re constantly skating over sentences and barely finishing them. Untrain your digitized brain. Read a sentence as slowly as you can, like you did when you were first learning how to read and sounding out words and thinking about what they meant. (This is especially pleasurable to do with a great stylist, like Nabokov or Cheever. Their sentences stand alone, pure gold on a page.)
  • Read just 20 pages at a time, to see if you can, without interrupting yourself. Then try 20 more. And so on.
  • Also, here’s a freebie: Facebook is evil. It is making you unhappy. And it’s making our country measurably worse. Delete your account as soon as possible. This is the main thing I’m preaching in 2018 (along with the fact that books are still good).

I have been thinking about these things as I begin a new year of reading. I’m reducing my personal goal a bit this year, so I can devote some more time to writing projects, but I have noticed how difficult it has been for me to focus on books. I feel like my reading brain is getting weaker, and it concerns me greatly. Hence, these tips.

Here’s to renewed vigor and to a year that is increasingly spent offline.

Best fiction I read in 2017

As far as fiction is concerned, 2017 was a year of returning to authors I now consider to be old favorites (or, at the very least, I was refreshing my opinions of those previously encountered). I read slowly and sometimes fitfully this year, but I was especially grateful for these top 10 highlights from my year in fiction.

The Rings of Saturn

1: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Sleeper hit of 2017! I’m surprised by myself, picking this as my favorite, but there it stands. I read Austerlitz some years back and found it inscrutable and frustrating, but this brilliant, dreamy novel hit me in all the right ways late in the year. It is an exquisite pleasure to wander around history and the English countryside with W.G. Sebald. I feel grateful, to have encountered a mind like his. The Rings of Saturn is so fragmented and yet it all holds together in this ineffable way. The perfect novel for an unusual year. (Amazon)

The Complete Stories

2: The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

My obsession with the weird, beautiful, mind-bending prose of Clarice Lispector knows no rational bounds. Her marvelous strangeness is a never-ending delight. I read these stories with deliberate slowness, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. I loved the common threads (a simple object or a stray glance hurtling a character into existential distress; chickens, dogs, and horses, but never cats; a woman ready to do something dramatic with her life and then she just goes home). I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory logic. In all the excruciating darkness of the world, at least we still have these stories; at least we still have Lispector. (Amazon)

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

3: The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t love it just because it has a German shepherd on the cover. Marvelously strange, gorgeously written. I am smitten with Joy Williams. This is a dense and delightful collection of her stories, old and new, and it contains manifold and unexpected pleasures. Her characters are at once familiar and foreign, transforming between sentences, subverting human behavioral conventions. And, of course, I loved the prevalence of dogs throughout. Color me a mega-fan. (Amazon)

Lincoln in the Bardo

4: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. Saunders seems to be able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character. (Amazon)

My Struggle: Book 5

5: My Struggle, Book 5, Karl Ove Knausgaard

Perpetually riveting, in all the same mysterious ways that the prior installments have been. This might be my second-favorite volume of My Struggle, after Book 1. They’re always in my top 10, in whatever year I encounter a volume. His plain prose has a mystically addictive property. I cannot describe it. (Amazon)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

6: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it. (Amazon)

The Sportswriter

7: The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

Fine, I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs. (Amazon)

Giovanni's Room

8: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a fated couple in Paris. Baldwin has such range and impressive economy of language. I am grateful to be reminded of his gifts with each encounter. (Amazon)

The Question of Bruno

9: The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon

Marvelous, inventive prose; dark stories with a comedic edge. It’s almost impossible to believe that he moved to Chicago with a marginal grasp of English and then, a few years later, published a work with this much style and sophistication in his newly learned language. (Amazon)

The Afterlives

10: The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce

Thomas Pierce brings all the components of a good story to the table: humor, empathy, and ingenuity. I lapped up this creative and touching novel, flying through it as I was flying home over the Pacific Ocean. Jim and Annie build a life together and wander through a future that does not feel too far away from us now. The future of American fiction, honestly, feels brighter to me, knowing that it is buoyed by writers like Pierce. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
  2. The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante
  3. Ways to Disappear, Idra Novey
  4. Bear, Marian Engel
  5. 10:04, Ben Lerner
  6. The Progress of Love, Alice Munro
  7. Small Island, Andrea Levy
  8. The Street, Ann Petry
  9. Collected Stories of John O’Hara
  10. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  11. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017 and best nonfiction I read in 2017. All Best Books lists are here.

Best nonfiction I read in 2017

I feel like I covered a lot of ideological ground with my nonfiction diet in 2017, but maybe that’s not true; maybe I read the same kind of thing year after year after year. In any event, here are my favorite nonfiction books from 2017.

Simone Weil: An Anthology

1: Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles

Perhaps embarrassingly, this was my first encounter with Simone Weil, French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist, a stylish genius who died at the age of 34. This anthology was the perfect introduction to her radical, refreshing mind. Weil’s observations of her own time (as a French Jew in the heat of World War II) strike me as startlingly relevant to our civic life today. It’s energizing and challenging in all the right ways, and I am looking forward to reading her more deeply. My in-laws gave me Gravity and Grace, her first published work, for Christmas, and it’s at the top of my list to tackle in 2018. (Amazon)

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

2: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond

The deserving winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Evicted is a serious, moving accomplishment of ethnography and inquiry into evictions, one of the leading causes of poverty and homelessness. Matthew Desmond’s work spans years and provides an intimate portrait of the men, women, and children struggling to keep their homes in Milwaukee. It is heartbreaking and goading all at once; I read it quickly, like a novel, over the course of a few days. Highly recommended. (Amazon)

Coming Into the Country

3: Coming into the Country, John McPhee

I’ll read John McPhee on any subject. This book, an adventure through Alaska in the 1970s, is a fantastic perspective of the land, its history and politics, and the deeply curious and strong people who inhabit it. (Amazon)

Glass, Irony and God

4: Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson

If I read Anne Carson in any given year, she’ll be on my top 10 list. This is just how it is. A brilliant mix of poetry, essays, and casual philosophy, this book held my breathless attention from start to finish. I think “The Glass Essay” is a masterpiece, even though the certified poets in my life (husband, Celeste) were less than impressed. I will not yield: I’m a Carson fangirl till my dying day. (Amazon)

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

5: In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caren Zucker

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name—and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails—has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present. That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

While there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been—thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved. (Amazon)

Chekhov

6: Chekhov, Henri Troyat

I have loved Anton Chekhov for years, and this biography made me love him even more. His unwavering devotion to showing life as it is, not as we want it to seem, and his sincerely good nature, continue to endear me to him and to his body of work. I am not typically one for biographies, but this one was completely delightful: Henri Troyat writes beautifully and clearly and presents a riveting portrait of the literary genius. I read it quickly, eagerly. (Amazon)

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

7: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

My husband, who is a total gem, gave me this book for Christmas 2016, because Lydia Davis told him to. Davis, Queen of My Heart, was a visiting scholar at the university in our town, and gave a series of lectures, all of which I was unable to attend, because of work duties, and I was devastated. My husband went to all but one of them and took notes for me. When he gave me this book, which I had not previously heard of, he said that in Davis’s talk on writing, she referenced Artful Sentences as a favorite resource. She said she liked to turn to it for examples of the marvelous variety of sentences that could be created and find inspiration therein.

And inspiration abounds! Virginia Tufte is like an industrious scientist of English syntax. She shares more than 1,000 sentences as examples of all the types of good and beautiful ways that one can fashion language, and she divides the book logically by grammatical types. It is a delight and a refreshing study of the gorgeous variety of English. It now sits on my desk at work, and I hope to return to it and read it every year. (Amazon)

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

8: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

A complete delight, in only the way that DFW can be. Sharp, memorable, brilliant, funny essays. It is a pleasure to return to him after taking a few years off; I think he’s the kind of writer whose impact is preserved and amplified if I don’t binge read him. (Amazon)

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

9: Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

They don’t make nonfiction like they used to. Marvelously researched and riveting from start to finish. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. (Amazon)

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10: Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

Powerful and extremely relevant. It was a galvanizing pleasure to read her work back to back; I had only ever read snippets before. And of course I am not the first or the last to say that this book, and Audre Lorde’s work in general, is an essential component of the American feminist canon. I was also reading this while reading Adrienne Rich’s collected poems, so I found the interview between them, which is included here, particularly fascinating. We white feminists have a lot to learn from our foremothers of color. It’s a good time to shut up and listen. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, Eleanor Perényi
  2. The Humane Gardener, Nancy Lawson
  3. Hiroshima, John Hersey
  4. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald
  5. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
  6. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller
  7. The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  8. Little Labors, Rivka Galchen
  9. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
  10. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles
  11. Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, Scott McClanahan
  12. The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood
  13. The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka
  14. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017. Up next: Best fiction I read in 2017.

For more from this yearly series, see Best Books.